The enduring image of the 1920s t is that of a young, thin, glamourous and often wealthy young woman with bobbed hair, short skirts and red lipstick. Think Clara Bow or Louise Brooks. This glamourous flapper-girl was far from the reality for most women of this period but it didn’t mean that a shop-girl didn’t get her hair bobbed or dream about her next dress. This was the age of growing consumerism and mass-production and the average woman could have a hat, dress or hand-bag just like Louise Brooks. Let’s take a look at what would be in this woman’s hand-bag in the 1920s! A sort of 21st century social media ‘What’s in my bag?’ post but with a 1920s twist!
Many women in the 1920s had at least two handbags; one for day time use and one for evening use. Most day-time handbags were made from leather, suede or fabric with many having interior pockets for money, keys and the all important red lipstick. Evening bags were often covered in beading to reflect the 1920s love of all things glitzy and were smaller than their day-time counterparts. Bags for evening wear often reflected the trends of the 1920s with handbags sporting Egyptian or Art Deco motifs. One thing that was common with most hand-bags in this era is that they were smaller than the ones we find from the 1930s onwards. Women did have specialized bags for shopping that often doubled as a travel bag or would use a wicker basket for their daily grocery shopping.
So what was in a 1920s woman’s handbag? Shall we have a look and pretend this Flapper had access to social media and is doing a blog post for all her flapper followers? One thing that women carried was loose change in the terms of bank notes or coinage either in a small separate purse or in a pocket within the handbag. Next came their keys, possibly a note book and some handkerchiefs. Women who came from the upper-classes possibly did not have a key to their own house as they expected their servants to answer the door with the exception to this if they were returning in the middle of the night after an evening of Charleston dancing.
In the 1920s more and more women were wearing some form of make-up albeit lipstick, rouge, mascara or powder. Women would carry a lipstick and possibly a powder compact in both their day and evening handbags with many powder compacts from this era being a highly sought after collectible in the 21st century. In the day-time hand bag you could also possibly find calling cards for calling on friends, an appointment diary of social events and more than likely in the working class woman’s handbag a grocery list for her daily grocery purchases.
The 1920s also saw an increase of women smoking in public with more women purchasing cigarettes and stowing these in their handbags either in their original packaging or in elaborate cigarette cases sometimes made from gold, silver or platinum if they were wealthy. Pockets within handbags could stop the contents from moving about and the owner of the hand-bag finding her cigarettes and lighter, pen and paper or lipstick in a flash rather than rummage around for minutes on end.
Handbags came in different designs, sizes, shapes and prices for women across the social spectrum. It was not un-common to match your gloves to your handbag and women from working class households possibly chose function over fashion when choosing a hand-bag for everyday use. If I was a flapper, I would definitely have had an array of hand-bags for every outfit including delicately beaded evening-bags and hand crafted hand-bags for day time. I also would have had lipstick from Elizabeth Arden, a cigarette case from Cartier and plenty of change for taxis to attend night-clubs to dance the Charleston. Of course this is all whimsical thinking and the reality would be that I would have been from a lower-middle class home and all my purchase would have been carefully saved for and bought for longevity rather than for the thrill of the purchase. One can but dream!
If we look at different 1920s handbags and their contents we can begin to understand how different women led very diverse lives counter to the popular image of the Flapper dancing the charleston. Not everyone danced the night away to the charleston and the reality for most women were being a housewife, mother and wife with little or no work outside of the home unless necessary. By harnessing a 21st method of blogging, i.e. the ‘What’s in my handbag?’ post, I hope I’ve been able to give a quick overview into a fascinating era of history with a 21s century twist to make this history more accessible to modern readers.
Check out the fact-sheet below if you want to find out more about 1920s handbags! (All photograpy unless otherwise stated (c) Author 2019).